The media have covered the Paris attacks with macabre precision. The BBC created a model of the inside of Bataclan, with arrows pointing to where the gunmen fired first and to the emergency exit through which the crowd tried to escape. Italian newspaper “La Stampa” reported the story of a pregnant woman hanging from a window of the concert hall, asking for help. The New York Times produced a dreadful court métrage, collecting videos recorded by witnesses that night. Last week’s edition of The Economist opens its report with a gloomy line: “It could have been any big city. It could have been you”. Articles along these lines are everywhere to be found in the aftermath of the tragedy. In my opinion, they give rise to two negative unintended consequences: they provoke overreaction, widespread panic and they play the terrorists’ game, by inspiring further attacks and potentially increasing recruitment channels.

There is evidence linking media coverage and terrorism, suggesting at least a strong correlation and, in many studies, a causal relationship. A paper by Michael Jetter uses data from GTD (Global Terrorism Database) to show that during the seven days following an attack the probability of another one taking place is higher. Most importantly, the author finds that media coverage can predict future attacks. Not only media coverage is positively correlated with new attacks, but also with new attacks happening sooner in the same country. Media coverage is the way for terrorists to promote themselves. A paper by Paul Wilkinson argues for a symbiotic relationship between terrorism and mass media. The media are inevitably competing for audience. Hence, they have an incentive to supply what the public demands: dramatic stories about victims and perpetrators. The author suggests that some kind of self-restraint by the media is the best policy option in a democratic society to prevent perverse incentives towards sensationalism (i.e. the tendency to focus on more catchy issues).

Dominic Rohner and Bruno Frey created a theoretical model on strategic interactions between terrorists and the media. The game theoretical model is based on the assumption of a common-interest-game, whereby both the media and terrorists benefit from terrorist incidents and where both parties adjust their actions according to the actions of the other player. Indeed, two variables of interest enter the constructed terrorist’s utility function: the share of news of the media devoted to terrorism and the level of sensationalism. The author calls the combining effect of these two variables the “media multiplier” of terrorism. Ceteris paribus, the benefits from time devoted to terrorism is increasing in media coverage and sensationalism. On the other hand, the media’s utility is increasing in terrorist news and level of sensationalism. Multiple equilibria can arise: the extreme cases of very high and very low levels of terrorism and media coverage are both stable. The model holds to empirical testing.

The policy implication of these findings is obvious: a legal or political support of quality media. Indirect policies that don’t threaten the independence of media but shape incentives in a libertarian paternalistic fashion could be of use. Ideally, they should make it less attractive for media to focus on sensationalist news. For instance, in Switzerland “broadsheet” newspapers are traditionally accepted and delivered by the post, and “tabloids” are in general bought at a newspaper stand. Some researchers suggest that increasing educational spending may also play a role in influencing demand for sensationalism. Good journalism and education may even be self-reinforcing. In fact, media can provide guidance for the public on how to react to emergencies, heightened vigilance for suspicious behavior and a platform for discussion. Since high quality journalism was found to increase the likelihood of a “low terrorism outcome”, the media should receive guidelines for self-restraint. Nevertheless, it is important to underline that “nudges” shall never be replaced by censorship. We must try to reshape distorted incentives, but if the freedom of the media is sacrificed in the process then one has allowed terrorism to destroy one of the key foundations of a democratic society.

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Francesca Bertolino

Francesca Bertolino

Originally from Italy and currently studying Political Economy of Europe at the London School of Economics. Obsessed with efficiency and passionate about economic research and public policy, she writes for The International Post.